Judge, A. Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, Third Edition. Edited by Judge, A. Union of International Associations, Brussels. K.G. Saur, Postfach 71 10 09, D-8000 Muenchen 70, Germany. 1991. Two volumes, 2,133 pages. US$415 or DM 598.

A Meta-linguistic Resource

 

The global problematique has been around for some time, but we are nowhere near solving it. Similarly, the futures field has an impressive track record in some areas (e.g., a rich literature, methodologies, concepts and a range of applications) but it has not yet produced many coherent overviews of the human dilemma, much less clear and usable policy guidelines for non-specialists. It’s fairly clear why: value pluralism, lack of meta-level methodologies, linguistic naivety, ideological diversions and so on. However, all is not lost. Occasionally a powerfully outstanding piece of work reminds us of what can, and should be achieved. This is one of them.

Other reviews of this work have concentrated on its size (over 2,000 pages), the number of references (20,958 entries linked by 114,395 relationships) and scope (the detailed divisions of problems and potentials).[1] But to my mind they tend to miss the point. The significance of this work is not its size or the scope of its references, impressive though these are. It is rather in the nature of what has been attempted. To this extent the term ‘encyclopedia’ is misleading. Readers will not find an easily- digested selection of material on ‘problems’ or ‘potentials’ such as they might expect from a more commercial publication. This one guards its riches and will not reveal them to the casual reader – at least not easily. An enormous amount of labour has gone into it and, in turn, the reader must also be prepared to expend some effort.

To begin with, there are about 60 pages of closely printed introduction wherein lie the keys to this work. They contain some of the most cogent observations about the dimensions and representations of the global problematique that I have ever seen. Indeed, they are good enough to be published separately. Material of this quality should not be hidden inside an academic tome or left to collect dust on a library shelf. There are commentaries on the work of numerous great thinkers from a wide variety of fields, observations on various systems of classification (including the I Ching and the 2,500 year old Brahmajala Sutta), and an impressive array of insights about the epistemology, symbolism, metaphysics, metaphors and linguistic representations of the subject.

So, if this is not an encyclopedia, what is it? Well, each reader will undoubtedly have a different view. Some will be intimidated by its complexity and language. Others will judge it to be a futile enterprise because it does not cater to simplistic or routine uses. What one makes of the work seems to me to depend largely upon what one is prepared to put into it. I’d describe it as: an elaborate and extended bibliographic meditation upon the nature and representations of the global problematique. As such, it explores the limits of print technology in seeking appropriate ways of abstracting and displaying information and ideas. Moreover, it is not simply a product. As the introduction makes clear it is a project, or process, which has taken many years and several editions to bring to this point.

The guiding intelligence of this impressive project lies within the complicated mind of Tony Judge, whose work on metaphor will be familiar to readers of Futures.[2] Indeed, the uses of metaphor is one of the themes explored here. It is seen as “a cognitive short cut through which more powerful, complex and subtly appropriate initiatives can be envisaged”(p. 73). The role of language in both revealing and concealing the world is something futurists ignore at their peril, and it is potently evoked: “daily language does not normally provide a means for grasping…complexity in any useful way…” (p. 48). Hence the central puzzle around which the project is structured: “the essential argument of this project…cannot be given explicitly because there can be no one language appropriate to the meta-answer that appears to be required. t can only be presented “tangentally” as a configuration of distinct languages…(p. 48, emphases in original).

Such insights are welcome in a field which has too frequently forgotten that ‘the map is not the territory’ and mis-represented its subject by overlooking the radical simplifications that occur in the linguistic descriptions of infinitely more complex phenonena. They help to explain why a deliberate attempt has been made to represent material ‘neutrally.’ Hence, no two references on a page have a logical connection, merely a numerical one. This increases the chances of random association from which inspiration could spring and, more importantly, tends to eliminate many of the biases and contextual clues that occur in more common formulations. It is certainly a bit off-putting at first, but the method makes perfect sense in this context. It is clearly explained, and some criticisms are anticipated (and answered), in the introduction.

My criticisms of the work are mainly practical and secondary. The two volumes are unwieldy and too much effort is expended actually finding the right page. Perhaps future editions could help the reader by providing indentations such as are found in some dictionaries. Again, the size of print will strain the eyes of some readers. This, coupled with the weight of the volumes, creates difficulties for the reader. Such tomes are not ‘user-friendly.’ In fact, I wonder if the material should be available solely in book form.

It would certainly be in line with the philosophy of the editors if the information presented were also made accessible in a more dynamic form. Failing this, some more effective ‘meta-guide’ is needed to facilitate the exploration and use of this impressive resource. A combination of colour and indenting could be very helpful. However, in an important sense, these are minor quibbles. We should be grateful to Judge and his colleagues for assembling such an impressive array of relevant and sophisticated material for our use. That is really the point. The encyclopedia does not set out to provide answers, simple or otherwise. It attempts to provide a context in which some of the right questions may be posed. As such it is a high-quality and welcome addition to the futures literature. It is well worth the relatively modest cost and will be of enormous help to all practicing futurists as a research tool, a source of material and a continuing inspiration. We would all be better off if there were more books of this stature.

After spending some considerable time with the encyclopedia, two metaphors remained with me. One was that of the infinite library, as evoked by Borges and others in their fiction. In a sense the work is infinite because it has collated so many important nodes of meaning from an enormous cultural space. Each node is connected with others, forming a vast network. The other is best expressed in the words of the editors. After noting the contributions of the project staff, the following comment appears:

And, not to be forgotten, are the five 108-megabyte disks of the UIA computer system which, over a three-year period, have spun together the human problems and potentials they held. At 3,600 revolutions per minute, has any prayer wheel done more? (p. 27).

It is a question worth pondering. For, more than any prayer wheel, the ‘spinning together’ of this web of ideas has provided us with a unique and powerful tool for transcending the problematique which inspired it.

Published in Futures 23, 3, May 1992, pp 403-405.

Notes

[1] See reviews by Cornish, E. in The Futurist 23 (6) 1991, 38-39; and Marien, M. in Future Survey 13 (10) 1991, 4-5.

[2] See Judge, A. The Aesthetics of Governance in the Year 2491, Futures 23 (4) 1991, 426-435.